Inflection Point: A “Small Ball” Budget Fix ?

Photo of Colorado Senate floorOver the last two Sundays, Denver Post Perspectives op-ed columnist Vincent Carroll has discussed the Colorado state budget, and his fairly simple proposal for addressing upcoming problems.

The main problem is that, despite strong economic growth in Colorado, TABOR and other constitutional constraints will require the state to refund tax revenues, as soon as this year, while also cutting some essential state services.  To address this, Carroll proposes a fairly simple, “small ball” type proposal, in contrast to a giant head-on constitutional fix that he suggests is highly unlikely to happen (he explicitly referenced the Build a Better Colorado effort to engage citizens in a broad discussion about fixes to the state constitution).

Carroll notes that his suggestion has things that conservatives and liberals with both like, and dislike, thus making it a possible compromise.  Conservatives will dislike a “TABOR timeout”, like Ref. C from 2005, which will allow the state to not provide TABOR refunds and keep those tax revenues to continue to support transportation maintenance, higher education, and other services that would otherwise get cut if the refunds do occur. Liberals will dislike a proposal to put aside the Amendment 23 requirement to grow K12 education spending by enrollment plus inflation, in years when the economy is not growing.

This seems like a pretty good proposal, though I’m not sure how politically feasible it is.  The “something for each side to dislike” makes it sound like a fair “centrist compromise” but those kinds of things can also die on both sides of the spectrum.  I’m not sure conservatives will want to easily give up the TABOR refunds that are now quite close on the time horizon.  And, while the timeout for K12 growth might seem reasonable to liberals, they would point out (as Carroll notes) that since 2011, the “negative factor” has made the Amendment 23 enrollment/inflation increase essentially moot anyway.  Flipping that around, of course, liberals might favor this proposal from a conservative, as they would get the TABOR timeout and the Amendment 23 cut has already happened anyway.

Both big picture (BBC discussions) and “small ball” proposals (like Carroll’s) are needed to try to fix the looming Colorado state budget problems.  Governor Hickenlooper’s “health care provider fix” is another approach that makes a lot of sense, given the history of that issue.

Whether Carroll’s proposal gets any traction, or not, this issue seems like a real test of governance in our state – can enough key actors come together to solve this problem, especially as we head towards a big election year in 2016?  Or do we suffer the consequences of gridlocked governance on autopilot, filled with conflicts and unintended consequences?

Categories: Commentary

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